There have been many attempts to invade Britain, met with a mixture of success and failure from the time of the Ancient Roman Empire up to WWII. The last time England has been successfully invaded was when Norman forces from France led by William the Conqueror successfully invaded Britain in 1066 and it took it. The Normans then settled in for several hundred years becoming less French and more English in years that followed.  They even ended up going to war against other family factions in France who tried to conquer them. One of those attempts occurred in 1797 by French forces lead by an Irish-American. As we obviously know by now that it didn’t succeed, but what most of us do not know was that the British probably won this battle with— the Ladies of Fishguard.

Cunning Invasion Plan

It was 1797, and Napoleon Bonaparte busying himself conquering central Europe. While he was out of town, the newly formed French revolutionary government called the Directory devised a plan of invading the British Isles to support their allies called the United Irishmen. This Irish group was against the British rule of Ireland, and they devised a “foolproof” plan headed by Irish-American Senior Colonel William Tate. The “cunning plan” was to attack the British forces simultaneously. They would land near Bristol, England’s second-largest city, pulverize it, then cross over into Wales and then northward onto Chester and Liverpool. They expected their invasion would result in the impoverished and disenfranchised British peasants rising up in rebellion against the British Crown.

And so, on February 18, 1797, around 1,400 disorganized and undisciplined French soldiers, including those who were fresh out of prison, sailed toward Britain. As the first sign of their impending failure and doom, however, the wind conditions made it impossible for their warships to land on the shores of Bristol or anywhere near. For Tate, it was just a challenge, and he was not at all deterred and was ready with his plan B.

Hopefully, Still Cunning Plan B

Colonel Tate’s cunning plan B was to land in Cardigan Bay on the western coast of Wales instead. On February 22, Wednesday, the French fleet sailed into Fishguard Bay, expecting that the Welsh were all unaware in their pajamas. Instead, they were welcomed with fire from a cannon. It was not for them but for the townspeople to be notified that they were being attacked.

French troops landing at Carngwasted near Fishguard on February 23, 1797. This image depicts the last ever invasion by ground troops on British soil. (National Library of Wales, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The 1,400-strong French party was feeling a bit doubtful about their plan. Worried that the cannon shot represented an foe ready to repel them, the invasion party decided to weigh anchor again and move up the coast until they reached a small beach near the village of Llanwnda. Rather than begin the invasion in earnest, these raw troops instead decided to go on a bender, ransacking the area and looting all the food and wine that the locals had just collected from a grounded Portuguese ship.  They may have also been demoralized when they saw their ships sailing back for France bearing the message that the invasion had been a success, and 1,200 troops would soon deliver all of England to France. They gorged themselves and got roaring drunk, so drunk that this derelict army ended up surrendering to a local militia force hastily thrown together and headed by Lord Cawdor within two days.

Jemima the Great

One of the key players in their defeat was a 47-year-old wife of a Fishguard cobbler named Jemima Fawr (or Nicholas). The moment she heard about the French invasion, she took it upon herself to march to Llanwnda armed with nothing but a pitchfork. She rounded up twelve French soldiers and compelled them to surrender where she had them locked up in St. Mary’s Church. She then went searching for more. According to the legend, she found two more French soldiers hiding in a cowshed and led them back to Fishguard as well at the point of her pitchfork.

Jemima’s triumph The pub sign at the Royal Oak depicts the (possibly apocryphal) single-handed capture by the local cobbler Jemima Nicholas of several French soldiers during their abortive invasion in 1797. (ceridwen / Jemima’s triumph / CC BY-SA 2.0)

As for their surrender agreement, part of Tate’s officers wrote that the British soldiers “with troops of the line to the number of several thousand” made them decide to surrender. However, there were no “several thousand” British forces anywhere near Fishguard. It was all a bluff but a rather clever one. Perhaps the French were too cross-eyed drunk to clearly make out the line of soldiers before them in what appeared to be uniforms of red and black and they missed that is was Welsh women dressed in their traditional outfit of red tunics and tall black felt hats that they mistook for British Redcoats in the distance. Or perhaps they put it that way so as not to be embarrassed by the fact that they got drunk and got owned by these Welsh women and local militia forces?

Whichever it was, Jemima and the locals were the heroes that saved the day.